Discovery: Research at Princeton University

March 31, 2011


Discovery: Research at Princeton University, produced by the Office of the Dean for Research in collaboration with the Office of Communications, reports on significant research endeavors and discoveries, faculty honors, notable awards, recent books and the University’s research administration. The latest edition, published in March 2011, is now available online. A printed version also is available. Please direct requests for copies to Annette Tate, department manager in the Office of the Dean for Research.

Download the current issue of Discovery (pdf).

See past issues of Discovery.

In the publication’s introductory Dean’s Note, Dean for Research A. J. Stewart Smith discusses the importance of research for human understanding and societal wellbeing, at Princeton and beyond, now and in the future:

Dean’s Note

Why research? We pursue research at Princeton to advance the understanding of our universe and our role in it, to increase fundamental human knowledge, and to serve the public welfare. These endeavors are critical at a time when the world faces daunting challenges of monumental proportions — the energy crisis, climate change, poverty and infectious diseases, to name just a few — and when life as we know it is constantly altered by the inflow of new knowledge, and by the applications of this knowledge to technology and to culture.

Whether in molecular biology or sociology, theoretical physics or economics, computer science or chemical engineering, the advances enabled by research often have unexpected — indeed, unimaginable — future applications. A new molecule might one day become a new medicine or enable an alternative energy source. A new theory might transform the way we communicate with one another or comprehend the global economy. And the ability to glimpse, and ultimately manipulate, particles on the nanoscale might revolutionize the way we process information.

It would be impossible to overstate the importance of U.S. universities in driving the research engine of our nation and in training the next generation of leaders to thrive in an increasingly technological world. At Princeton, and at peer institutions across the nation, new knowledge is actively being created and applied in an open, undirected environment that allows young minds to pursue their curiosity and stretch their imaginations, approaching old questions in novel ways, and answering new questions that have never been tackled. Supported by the University’s offices of corporate and foundation relations and technology licensing, Princeton researchers are encouraged to share their expertise with industry and prepare intellectual property for commercial development. Using these avenues, fundamental new knowledge can be translated into technologies and applications that improve lives around the globe.

Dean for Research A. J. Stewart Smith (Photo by Denise Applewhite)These endeavors — knowledge creation and dissemination, the translation of basic research into applications, and perhaps most important of all, the education of young scientists and engineers — are integral to societal wellbeing, now and in the future. But success is not a foregone conclusion. Success will depend on a renewed and reinvigorated societal commitment to research and innovation. Success will depend on the widespread realization that scientific progress and innovation are not just important — they are critical — to the health of our economy and to global competitiveness. And success will depend on the willingness of national and global leaders to make the right choices, difficult though they may be, in selecting where and how and when to allocate limited resources in the face of intense pressure and competing demands.

For many decades the United States has enjoyed a special position as the world’s preeminent center of innovation, but America is now being seriously challenged by the forces of globalization and by increasing technological and industrial capabilities in Asia and Europe. At the same time, the recent economic downturn is forcing us to make difficult decisions about public and private U.S. investment in education, basic research, and innovation.

This situation has been worrisome for many years. In 2005, the National Academies’ Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century issued a troubling report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future,” which showed that the scientific and technological building blocks critical to U.S. economic leadership were eroding just as many other countries were gaining strength, and warned that leadership, once lost, may not be possible to regain. Though the report received strong support over two presidential administrations and from congresses led by both parties, the storm clouds have not cleared. Instead, the committee felt compelled to issue a metaphorical alarm in a follow-up report in 2010 that the storm is now rapidly approaching a Category 5 hurricane, and “…we are now at a tipping point.”

The hurdles we as a society find in front of us are massive, and we cannot be complacent. But we can be optimistic, provided that we make the right decisions going forward. The reason for hope is evident in the following pages, where you can read about the tremendous advances being made across the intellectual spectrum. Fueled by intellectual curiosity, a passion for educating and a desire to serve national and international goals, Princeton scholars are expanding the knowledge frontier, inventing new technologies, and training and inspiring future generations of thinkers and leaders to find solutions to the problems that inevitably lie in the path ahead. Of course, one report cannot tell the whole story: the breakthroughs described here are but a snapshot of the University’s vibrant and thriving research enterprise.

Welcome to research at Princeton.

A. J. Stewart Smith

Dean for Research and the Class of 1909 Professor of Physics

Princeton University